Developing and utilizing new technology always has been key to advancing the rubber industry. And those companies that are at the forefront of such developments give themselves a better chance for long-term growth and survival.
One such technology that is starting to gain traction in the elastomer sector is additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing. The concept has been around for a number of years now, and has evolved from being somewhat of a novelty to use in prototypes and, more recently, as a tool that can be used in certain production environments.
Growth for 3D printing came first in other sectors, including plastics, where materials were more easily adaptable to the production needs of additive manufacturers. With rubber, it took a bit more time to figure out which materials were best-suited and how they needed to be modified.
The situation with 3D printing isn't all that dissimilar to when liquid silicone rubber started in the 1970s and 1980s, and it took some time before proponents of LSR figured out how to best tweak the liquid injection molding process.
There are a couple key differences, though. First, in today's world, quantum leaps in technology can come much quicker. And second, there are many materials other than silicone that potentially can reap the benefits of 3D printing.
In fact, some of the world's largest materials firms are engaged in research and development that can widen the reach of their offerings. Big names such as Dow, Wacker, Huntsman and Henkel, among many others, are using their expertise to create silicones, urethanes, adhesives and other elastomer-related offerings.
Of course, additive manufacturing will be more easily adapted by some industry sectors than others. Areas where unique shapes are needed or shorter runs of a product are required are likely to find applications first. The medical and aerospace industries already are finding success stories with 3D printing.
The rise in additive manufacturing has been slower in the high-volume automotive business. Thus far, the main usage has been to make spare parts, with some tooling and low-volume components. With the vehicle industry being so tied to economies of scale, cost and materials, some say they see 3D printing as more of "another tool in the tool box," rather than a technology that becomes a dominant force.
A speaker at a recent Center for Automotive Research event said one key to development is the need for players in the sector to work together in a pre-competitive environment, where all work toward the same goal.
While it remains to be seen what the future will bring in 3D printing for rubber applications, it's certain there is much more to come.